Roy Orbison‘s death in December 1988 came just six weeks after the release of Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, the debut album of the famed supergroup.
When the band reconvened to make a video for the record’s second single, “End of the Line,” its remaining members decided to pay homage to their departed bandmate.
Recorded several months earlier, “End of the Line” featured each of the members – with the exception of Bob Dylan – contributing vocal parts. Orbison delivered the third verse, while also contributing to the group vocal parts.
The video, set aboard a railway train, saw bandmates Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Dylan performing the track alongside drummer Jim Keltner. When Orbison’s vocal lines came, the camera showed a guitar sitting in a rocking chair next to a photo of the departed rocker – a touching tribute from the Wilburys to their fallen friend.
Released on Jan. 23, 1989, “End of the Line” was a minor success for the group, peaking at No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
For the members of the Traveling Wilburys, each of whom had already solidified themselves as legends in the music world, coming together to make an album was an enjoyable experiment and a change of pace from their solo work.
“There was a lot of fun involved because you’re strumming these brand new tunes that you’ve just made up, you know, milliseconds ago,” Lynne said in a 2012 interview. “There you are doing it and then you’ve got to write the words and then you’re singing in. And that’s all happening in a matter of probably like four hours. It did change my way of thinking about things and show me the other way of doing it, which is actually doing it quick.”
At the end of 1988, Orbison, over the moon with the success of the first album, called up bandmate Petty shortly before his death.
“He phoned me about three days before he died, he was just going on about how happy he was, you know, ‘the Wilburys, ain’t it great?'” Petty recalled in a 1989 interview with Norwegian TV. “Somehow I felt that he could tell things were going his way.”
“Just the fact that we were able to get together and produce two albums and four videos to me is sort of a bit of a small miracle, really,” said Harrison in a 1990 interview, noting the second Wilburys album, the intentionally misnumbered Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, which was released two years after the first and featured all the original band members, minus Orbison. “And then the pleasure and the fun of writing the songs, recording them and the various other things that have happened because of the Wilburys… It’s a good thing we’re all good friends, it’s an excuse to hang out together really.”
Though there would be no third Traveling Wilburys album, the strength of the initial lineup stuck with the members as they continued their careers.
“I was very glad to have worked with Roy and to have known him really,” said Petty. “The last year of his life we spent a lot of time together, we got to know each other really well… I wish he could have seen it, maybe he did see it, maybe he does see it.”